Philippine perspective on Western concepts Rappler

Philippine perspective on Western concepts Featured

SEVERAL years ago, when we established the Centrist Democratic Movement (CDM) of young political technocrats that transformed itself into a political party of dues-paying members, the Centrist Democratic Party of the Philippines (CDP), we never had the illusion that we could compete with the major political parties existing then and now. Not yet, on the national level. CDP has been on hiatus except in some areas where it is flourishing (in Cagayan de Oro), but in most, it is struggling to survive. But more importantly, we have pockets of areas where political technocrats and political leaders imbued with the concepts of Centrist Democracy (CD) continue to be active and relevant in their communities. Some of them are elected local officials embedded in other mainstream political parties — the only way many of these leaders can be part of the political dynamics and perhaps make a difference.

CD's history and antecedents can be accessed through our publications, collection of speeches, documents and essays on our website (, and thus will not be the focus here. This series of columns is meant to reassess the premises for Centrist Democracy's cherished precepts. To refresh, our core value is centered on human dignity, and therefore we hold that political, economic and social order must be logically designed so that the dignity of each person is promoted and enhanced. These concepts are not homegrown. These are Western ideas that we adopted over the years after the transition from Spanish to American colonial rule.

America introduced a totally different system, which evolved over a century and a half of American experience in government since 1776. America convinced us that the type of government adopted by the Philippines from the start of the 20th century toward the Philippine Commonwealth and onwards emanating from these tenets was one suited to us.

Democracy, freedom and human rights

Democracy, freedom and human rights are the basic concepts America imparted to its first colony in the Far East. A break from the centuries of Spanish monarchical rule, the premises of America's political endowments to the Filipinos after wresting control of the islands run counter to what was inflicted on the colony by the 300 years of Spanish colonial rule. Democracy is the foundation of its system of governance where power is vested in the people exercising the same through elected representatives. The citizenry, in effect, has the right to participate in the decision-making processes that affect their lives.

Freedom is the fundamental value of governance, encompassing personal, economic and political aspects. And human rights emphasize the protection of individual rights and liberties that are embedded in America's Constitution, the Bill of Rights, guaranteeing freedom of speech, religious beliefs, and a right to a fair trial.

These three principles are closely interconnected and mutually reinforcing; democracy overarches the two, allowing the protection and promotion of freedom and human rights; and the flourishing of freedom and human rights is critical for the functioning and legitimacy of a democratic system.

As a drastic departure from the perspectives of monarchies and authoritarian systems, the ideas of self-governance and popular sovereignty were alien to the Spanish legacy. These ideas continue to shape America's sorties into the world and provide the basic impetus for its foreign policies. In an evolving modern world, they germinated attendant notions such as the rule of law, a free market economy and global trade.

Philippine experience

In a span of five decades, toward gaining our independence, democracy, freedom, human rights and the rule of law were piggybacked into the centuries-old native practices of our ancestry — the subservience of the inhabitants of the islands to our sultanate and datu culture, engraved into our psyche by 300 years of Spanish tutelage but perverted to a large extent in our system of governance, spawning a patronage system that became the core of our practice of governance. A corollary to these concepts was the adoption of a presidential system of government, an embryo upon which patronage politics is nurtured. For almost 100 years, the system flourished, feeding upon the least desired facet of the Filipino culture: the desire for and dependence on a benefactor from the datu and sultan, heading a clan; to the Spanish patron looking over the indios, to the American "big brother"; morphing into the Philippine president, the "father" of a people..."

Democracy and patronage

Over the decades, the Filipino discovered other facets of democracy. And this was articulated by Alexander Fraser Tytler, a Scottish thinker who, two centuries ago, made a profound observation: "A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that a democracy always collapses..."

How true the observation was as translated by Filipino voters over several decades of elections and changes in governments. Perhaps this could explain why the Philippines has lagged behind in its development from the time we adopted these foreign concepts and married them to our culture. As practiced, the Filipino voters invariably vote into office those that benefit them and their families the most, directly breeding another phenomenon pervasive in Philippine politics — the political dynasties. These are families that oversee local politics, where relationships are personal and intimate. They retain their hold on power by all means, converting "public service [into] a private business," passing on to their progeny these elected positions and public largesse. They now permeate national politics — validating the aphorism "that all politics are local."

By Tytler's interpretation, our democracy and its attendant principles are collapsing. It may not even be the right one for us in the first place, after all. It is a given that the purpose of government is to improve the lives of its citizenry, lift them up from poverty and ignorance, and provide for them and the next generation the wherewithal for a good life. But are we achieving this within our system of governance? Are there alternatives?

Looking toward our neighbors

It is touted, but perhaps only a myth, that the Philippines, before World War 2, was the second-most developed country in Asia after Japan. But now the International Monetary Fund (IMF) by nominal GDP and other metrics such as per capita wealth, worker's pay and buying power, rates the Philippines far below China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, etc. and at par with Vietnam and higher than Laos, Cambodia and Bangladesh.

I cite two Asian countries with different political historicity and considered as backward countries compared to us at the turn of the century and even toward the end of WW2. But today, they are more developed economically with their citizenry's living standards uplifted. Their model of governance has not been a liberal democracy akin to what America imposed on us. They have authoritarian governments, but their economies have soared under the authoritarian leadership of Lee Kuan Yew (1959–1990) and Mahathir Mohamad (1981–2003; 2018–2020). During the regimes of these two, the Philippines underwent seven "democratic changes" in regimes.

To be continued next week000
Read 413 times Last modified on Thursday, 07 September 2023 02:04
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